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The Day John Cage Played Marcel Duchamp at Chess (on a Board Turning Every Move Into Music)


The story of a game of chess that became an extravagant musical composition.

Always a metaphor in miniature for the tangled paths of human power, chess has captivated the world’s brightest and most eccentric minds. Most of them know its secret symbolism and the possibility that it’s more than a simple board game. From the writer Vladimir Nabokov, the directors Stanley Kubrick and Charlie Chaplin, to the great Leo Tolstoy, and composer Sergei Prokofiev, to Lenin and Napoleon, the list of chess lovers (a list described by Borges as “geometric and bizarre”) also included Marcel Duchamp and John Cage. One day in 1968, they played a game that, as might very well be expected, was more than merely a game.

Marcel Duchamp loved the game so much that at some point in his life his love for chess cost him even his brief marriage to the heiress, Lydie Sarazin-Lavassor. The artist spent his honeymoon solving chess problems, and in the last years of his life, when he’d retired from the art world, among of his favorite activities was still to play the game. Even today, anyone can play a game of chess with Duchamp’s ghost. For his own part, John Cage once confessed that he played chess against Duchamp to spend time with the Frenchman and that he never managed to be as great a player while Duchamp was alive.

In 1943, in tribute to Duchamp, Cage composed Chess Pieces, a piece for piano and completed a drawing of a chessboard which incorporated the score of the music. Years later, he invited the artist to play him in public in Toronto, a pretext to the creation of the musical show called Reunion. The Frenchman attended the epic game with his wife, Teeny. Unfortunately, no film footage of the meeting exists, but only a few photographs.

The mythic chess match between the two artists was played on a board designed by Lowell Cross (one of the inventors of laser light shows). The board emitted electronic music produced by sound-generating systems when areas of the board were covered or uncovered with the photosensitive pieces. Cross also placed microphones to catch the sounds of the movement of the pieces as they slipped over the board’s surface. Simultaneously, images generated by an oscilloscope were projected onto television screens, to visually monitor what was happening in the game. The game lasted as long as the audience, and Duchamp (in what was to be his last public appearance) could endure; from 8:30 pm, March 5, 1968, until 1:00 am the following day.

An unrepeatable meeting, it probably looked like a scene from the theater of the absurd and must have been magnificent. A “futuristic” board sprouting cables and two of the most important modern artists – one who changed the history of conceptual art and another who changed contemporary music – playing for hours in silence and illuminated by the reflectors of the Ryerson Theatre. Cage lost, as always, and Duchamp whose health declined would die a few months later. But he’d made something he had long neglected to do: a piece of art. Thus, inadvertently, Cage was instrumental in seeing that the Frenchman realized one of his last creations.

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